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Drones, smart hydrants considered by experts looking at future of firefighting

February 21, 2014 Updated: February 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm

The drone detects the fire, a supercomputer analyzes it and determines it's a threat and automated fire hydrants douse it instantly.

Welcome to wildfire season. In 2024.

That idyllic future was part of an Air Force Academy discussion that plunged firefighters and federal experts into the not-so-distant future as part of an exercise in "threatcasting."

Led by a futurist from Intel and a junior cadet, the group of 25 examined how technology, cultural, economic and policy changes could affect how future fires are handled.

"It's like juggling elephants," said academy fire Capt. Elaine Perkins.

Brian David Johnson is the futurist for Intel who helped lead the two-day wildfire workshop at the academy. At the chipmaking company, he's responsible for determining how people will use technology in the future.

He said examining disasters is a natural extension of the job.

"We want to use our technology to make people's lives better," he said.

Joining Johnson was cadet Eric Bonick, who spent last summer working at Intel and was inspired to study natural disasters with the methods the military applies to overseas threats.

"Threatcasting" examines trends to extrapolate what the future could look like, allowing the military to prepare battle plans and develop technology to counter enemy moves.

In addition to wildfires, Bonick is using the technique to help his classmates explore the future of nuclear proliferation.

"It's a way to analyze the threats that are over the horizon," Bonick said.

For the participants, that meant talking about things that aren't usually part of the firefighting lexicon, including using NASA satellites, military drones and radio-frequency identification chips to track fires and firefighters.

Other topics included new fire suppression technologies such as smart hydrants that can release a shower of water on computer command to protect property.

Perkins said the possibility of giving firefighters a constant stream of information could make a difference.

"Real-time data is what we need," she said.

Colorado Springs Battalion Chief Troy Branham said threatcasting is unlike the constant training firefighters undergo to prepare for the next blaze.

Keeping a wary eye on the dry trees on Cheyenne Mountain is helpful, but doesn't take future technologies into consideration.

The academy exercise, backed by the school's Center for Innovation, he said, "gets us thinking outside the box."

The academy confab was the first step in what Johnson and Bonick envision as a long-term conversation on how America approaches the disasters of tomorrow.

The fire work is ongoing and future conferences are planned to focus on hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes.

Johnson said dealing with natural disasters is tougher than countering military threats.

Enemy moves are uncertain, but disasters are inevitable, he said.

"You can't beat fire," he said.

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